A Tree Reborn, a Commitment Renewed

People on seating wall, in a circle
Professor Ari Kelman, faculty advisor to the chancellor and provost, gives remarks in the Native American Contemplative Garden, March 4.

Quick Summary

  • Tree-planting held at the Native American Contemplative Garden
  • Saplings replace 85-year-old California buckeye that broke apart
  • Garden honors the first inhabitants of land that became UC Davis
Photography by Anjie Cook/UC Davis

Where others today may see only trees and water, Patwin Elder Edward “Bill” Wright envisioned his ancestors hundreds of years ago living on the banks of Putah Creek where UC Davis would eventually be built.


Top of basalt column with inscription, "Try to imagine this place with no buildings, no sidewalks, no roads ..."
Inscription on basalt column.

The ceremony began with a reading of the UC Davis Land Acknowledgement. Here is an excerpt: “The Patwin people have remained committed to the stewardship of this land over many centuries. It has been cherished and protected, as elders have instructed the young through generations. We are honored and grateful to be here today on their traditional lands.”

“It was one of his favorite spots,” said Juan Ávila Hernandez, a member of the Committee to Honor the Patwin and Native Americans, referring to a small clearing along the creek’s historic channel (today it is the Arboretum Waterway).

Elder Wright, who died last September at the age of 84, and other committee members particularly liked the site for the decades-old live oak and California buckeye trees that provided a massive canopy to filter the light and create a relatively secluded space underneath.

And so it would become the Native American Contemplative Garden, chosen by the committee of representatives of the Patwin community, and UC Davis faculty, staff and students, and dedicated in November 2009.

Twelve years later, the nearly 40-foot-tall buckeye broke apart, leaving a 10-foot-tall stump, about 4 feet in diameter, hollow, as it turned out. The buckeye was among the first trees to be planted in the Arboretum 85 years ago, records show.

Ávila Hernandez was among the first to take notice of the fallen buckeye, around the end of 2021, setting in motion a replacement project that culminated in a tree-planting ceremony March 4. Three saplings will vie to be the buckeye that takes over the spot overlooking the Native American Contemplative Garden.

Two women dig holds for plantings
The Arboretum’s Emily Griswold, left, and Abbey Hart, prepare to plant replacement trees for the California buckeye that broke apart, behind them, on the perimeter of the Native American Contemplative Garden.

Elder tree

The older buckeye’s stump is several feet away, after Arboretum managers and the committee decided to leave it along with some of the large limbs that crashed around it. Read more about this natural sculpture.

Assistant Vice Chancellor Kathleen Socolofsky, director of the Arboretum and Public Garden, who led the tree-planting ceremony, noted the green shoots coming out of the trunk: “It is still living. It will be the elder looking after the next generation.”

Saplings before planting
Griswold collected the California buckeye seeds along Putah Creek near Lake Berryessa.

She spoke to 30 or so people who had gathered around the Native American Contemplative Garden’s centerpiece: a basalt column inscribed with the names of 51 Patwin men, women and children removed from the land by Spanish soldiers and missionaries and taken to missions from 1817 to 1836.

Other basalt columns — telling other parts of Patwin history — line the garden’s path, which meanders like a creek. The path leads to a seating wall that is coiled in the way a Patwin would start to weave a basket.

History professor Ari Kelman, faculty advisor to the chancellor and provost, also addressed the gathering. “This garden points in two directions,” he said. “It provides space for native and non-Native American people to consider the past, and it presents the possibility of creating a better future together.”

Man and woman plant western rosebud tree
Dillon McKay of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, one of three federally recognized Patwin tribes, assists Emily Griswold in the planting of a western redbud to accompany the buckeye saplings. 

Collaboration continues

Renetta Garrison Tull, vice chancellor of Diversity, Education and Inclusion, thanked the Committee to Honor the Patwin and Native Americans “for making this garden possible and bringing us back here today to honor the spirit of this beautiful buckeye tree.”

The committee was established in 2000 after excavation work for the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts revealed the remains of 13 Patwin.

Tull reaffirmed the commitment of the chancellor’s office to acknowledge the Patwin as the first people on the land. She said she looked forward to the committee’s continued work with members of the Native community “to help guide the way UC Davis honors Native Americans into the future.”

Committee members, posing
Committee members past and present, from left: Front row — Juan Ávila Hernandez, Inés Hernández-Ávila and Tammara Norton. Back row — Sid England, Carol Wall, Helen McCarthy, Sheri Tatsch, Skip Mezger, Bob Segar and Kathleen Socolofsky.

Inés Hernández-Ávila, professor in the Department of Native American Studies, among committee members past and present who attended the ceremony, said she appreciated that the tree-planting represented a renewal of the university’s commitment to the committee's work.

Speaking from her Native perspective, she emphasized “the need for us to be recognized as the original inhabitants of the land.”

Kelman, speaking on behalf of Chancellor Gary S. May and Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Mary Croughan, who could not attend due to other commitments, commended the committee for its “essential work” over two decades. Besides overseeing the garden project, the committee guided the installation of a monument outside the Mondavi Center in 2019. More installations are planned around the campus. 

Hernández-Ávila described it as “a work of spirit, a work of the heart.” Her husband, Juan, added: “If we choose to sweep that history under the rug, choose to forget about it and don't put it into the curriculum, then we are in danger of losing our humanity. And that would be a dire state.”

Man and woman add dirt to tree planting
Juan Ávila Hernandez and Professor Inés Hernández-Ávila add dirt around the saplings.

Media Resources

Dateline Staff: Dave Jones, editor, 530-752-6556, dateline@ucdavis.edu; Cody Kitaura, News and Media Relations specialist, 530-752-1932, kitaura@ucdavis.edu.

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